SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — Confident that residents in Ukraine’s southeastern Crimean region will vote to become part of Russia in an upcoming referendum, Moscow is looking ahead to the next step.
Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, will discuss legislation on March 21 on Crimea joining the nation, the state-run RIA Novosti news agency reported Tuesday.
Crimea will hold a referendum Sunday on whether the peninsula should become a part of Russia or remain within Ukraine.
The hastily convened public poll follows a unanimous vote by Crimea’s local parliament in favor of leaving Ukraine for Russia. Ukraine’s interim government has called the referendum unconstitutional.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius also called the referendum illegal, tweeting on his official account Tuesday that sanctions against Russia over its intervention in Crimea could come as soon as this week.
Sanctions would include asset freezes and visa suspensions, he said.
“We have a firm position, but still we are seeking a political solution,” he tweeted. “The only legitimate vote in Ukraine will be May 25, the upcoming presidential election.”
The pro-Russian regional government in Crimea was installed less than two weeks ago after armed men seized the parliament building and raised the Russian flag above it.
Russia denies its military is involved in Crimea, saying the well-equipped, pro-Russian troops who have taken over key Ukrainian military sites are local “self-defense” forces.
But the government in Kiev, the United States and the European Union say the soldiers — wearing uniforms without insignia — belong to the Russian military.
The forces have been consolidating their hold on key sites in Crimea over the past week.
A flight from Kiev was turned back from Simferopol International Airport on Tuesday, Ukraine International Airlines said, in what appears to be a shift to allow only selected flights into Crimea. Turkish Airlines said it also had suspended its flights into Simferopol, the regional capital.
Armed men have been in control of the flight control center near the airport for several days, but until now, flights have operated normally.
Flights from Moscow appeared to be landing as scheduled Tuesday.
Yanukovych: I’m still President
The autonomous region has become the flashpoint for tensions since Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted last month.
On Tuesday, he made only his second public appearance since leaving Ukraine for Russia after bloody clashes between security forces and protesters in Kiev.
Speaking in Rostov-on-Don in southwestern Russia, Yanukovych slammed Ukraine’s interim government as illegitimate and said extreme right-wing elements had taken control.
“Behind a so-called lawful government, a gang of ultranationalists and fascists are acting, who want to take the presidential post,” he said.
He accused these “dark forces” of controlling law enforcement and menacing the peaceful civilian population, and he addressed a question to the West: “Are you blind? Have you forgotten what fascism is?”
Russia also says that far-right nationalist and fascist elements involved in the protests in Kiev are behind those in power and represent a threat to ethnic Russians in the country.
Yanukovych, who spoke backed by the yellow-and-blue flag of Ukraine, insisted he is still the lawful leader of his country and will return to Kiev as soon as circumstances allow.
“I’m not just the legitimate President, but I am also the head of the military. I’ve not stopped my responsibilities, I’m alive, I’ve not been left without my powers,” he said.
Yanukovych said the elections scheduled for May 25 will be unconstitutional and “held in total control of extremist forces.”
The United States will be prevented from giving $1 billion in promised aid to Ukraine, he said, because its constitution forbids it to give financial help to a country where the leader was ousted by a coup.
Yanukovych, who insisted he had not fled Ukraine during what he called a coup, was ousted after three months of protests against his decision to spurn a free trade deal with the European Union and turn toward closer ties with Russia.
Moscow also has denounced the events that led to Yanukovych’s ouster as an illegitimate coup and has refused to recognize the new Ukrainian authorities, putting the two countries on a collision course over control of Crimea.
Putin has said Russia has the right to protect ethnic Russians living in the former Soviet republic. Russia also has a large, strategically important naval base in the Crimean Black Sea port of Sevastopol.
Ukraine’s interim government was voted into office after Yanukovych fled Kiev.
The French foreign minister defended the government Tuesday, saying it was “legitimately installed by the Ukrainian parliament” and trusted in Europe.
“The extreme right is not represented in the current Ukrainian government,” Fabius said.
NATO planes to monitor crisis
Romania’s Defense Ministry said that AWACS reconnaissance planes would fly over Romanian airspace Tuesday as part of NATO’s efforts to monitor the crisis in Ukraine.
A NATO spokesman confirmed Monday that the alliance had decided to carry out reconnaissance flights over Romania and Poland. They will not enter Ukrainian airspace.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, speaking alongside his Estonian counterpart Urmas Paet on a visit to Tallinn, the Estonian capital, said the current relationship with Russia cannot continue unless the country heeds calls to calm the situation.
“We are not only deeply worried, but we believe what is intended by Russia in view of the Crimea is completely unacceptable,” he said. “We both agree that we will stand up to further escalations united and determined.”
He warned that if Russia’s position does not change over the weekend, then further steps may follow next week at the European Council, which brings together EU heads of government.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, a regional security bloc, said on Twitter that Ukraine had asked its unarmed military observers to continue their visit, “this time to cover the south and east of the country.” They have been unable to access Crimea despite repeated attempts.
Meanwhile, a declaration from the Crimean parliament said that if the people vote in favor of joining Russia, then the first step will be to declare Crimea an independent and sovereign state, governed as a republic.
Then, as an independent state, Crimea will ask the Russian Federation if it can join as a federal subject, it said. The declaration cited Kosovo in the Balkans as an example where a U.N. court had backed a unilateral declaration of independence by part of a country.
Crimea, a Black Sea peninsula that has been part of Ukraine since 1954, has a majority Russian population and strong cultural and historical ties to Russia.
At the United Nations, French Ambassador Gerard Araud told reporters Monday that the situation in Crimea “is worsening by the day.”
Russian troops are being reinforced and Moscow appears ready to annex the region, he said after a Security Council session.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov talked on the phone Tuesday about their respective countries’ ideas about resolving the Ukrainian crisis, a day after Lavrov announced that Kerry had postponed a face-to-face meeting with Putin, the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
“Russia emphasized the need to respect the rights of all Ukrainians and all regions while looking for ways of solving the crisis and the need to respect the rights of Crimea’s citizens to determine their destiny by themselves in accordance with the international law,” the ministry said.
Kerry was to have met Putin to discuss U.S. proposals, which Moscow has effectively rejected, on solving the crisis. A Kerry-Putin meeting would have marked the highest-level face-to-face contact between the two countries since Russian troops took up positions in Crimea.
By Laura Smith-Spark and Diana Magnay
CNN’s Diana Magnay reported in Simferopol, and Laura Smith-Spark wrote and reported in London. CNN’s Khushbu Shah, Stephanie Halasz, Elise Labott, Ivan Watson, Talia Kayali, Karen Smith, Saad Abedine and Yon Pomrenze contributed to this report.